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Sitting Ducks

Reduce sedentary time for health


A sedentary lifestyle, driving in our car, and sitting at our office desk all day, is bad for our health. Get up and move with our office exercise tips.

A huge segment of our population is engaged in a daily routine that, if not shaken up a bit, may turn out to be a lurking health hazard.

Does the following sound familiar? You get out of bed early, shower, dress, sit down to eat breakfast. You sit in your car for an hour in rush-hour traffic to get to the office. Then you sit at your workstation for eight hours (with lunch at your desk to get that report out on time).

You sit in your car for another hour to return home. You drive to the pick-up window for dinner (just this once, you understand—you’re tired and hungry). You sit down to eat dinner, and then sit down in front of the TV to relax after a long and stressful day. At the end of the evening you get into bed to rest for the following day—which promises to be more of the same.

This may be an extreme example, but it’s sadly close to the truth for many people. What’s most concerning about it, though, is that with the help of scientific research, we are learning about the very negative consequences of all this sitting.

Redefining sedentary

Many of us think of the ubiquitous couch potato when we think of sedentary behaviour. However, scientists have more accurately defined the meaning of sedentary when it comes to studying activity levels and human health.

Researchers, in a recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, define sedentary behaviour (from the Latin sedere - to sit”) as “those behaviours for which energy expenditure is low, including prolonged sitting time in transit, at work, at home, and in leisure time.”

We all know now, thanks to all the research done into the effects of physical activity levels on our health, that increasing the time we spend doing moderate to vigorous intensity activities to at least 30 minutes a day improves our overall health outcomes.

But expanding research into activity levels is now looking at how long we spend each day sitting—and what the effects of prolonged sitting might have on our health.

Sitting (not so) pretty

A study into the TV viewing habits of 8,000 Australian adults over an average of six years found that those who watched more than four hours of TV a day were 46 percent more likely to die early of any cause and 80 percent more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than those who watched less than two hours a day.

The lead researcher, Professor David Dunstan of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia, warns that even the people who compensated for their TV habits with more exercise still died sooner. This was confirmed in a more recent study published in July in the American Journal of Epidemiology. This is because the problem is essentially about sitting.

The Australian researchers concluded that chronic disease prevention strategies, in addition to the promotion of exercise, should focus on reducing sitting time. They pointed to an absence of muscle movement for prolonged periods, which causes the disruption of the body’s regulatory processes.

Get up from that chair

Although these studies are delivering bad news to couch potatoes, the point the researchers have made is that any sedentary activity—sitting in front of the TV, in front of a computer, while reading a book, or while driving—over long periods of time can lead to big problems.
What scientists call whole-body muscular inactivity associated with prolonged sitting, has been strongly linked to obesity, diabetes, and certain types of cancer, as well as cardiovascular disease.

The good news is that many studies reveal that frequent bouts of activity, such as incidental walking during the workday, can decrease sedentary behaviour, reducing the impact on our health.

The even better news, especially for our bosses, is that this can also increase workplace productivity. Further evidence points toward increased breaks in sedentary work time as being positively associated with reduced metabolic risk factors. (See the below for more tips to reduce the effects of sitting.)

Taking action

Some regulatory agencies and health insurers have been quick to respond to the growing evidence about sedentary behaviour and have been lobbying for changes in the workplace to address some of the negative effects of sedentary work.

One of Australia’s largest health insurers, Medibank, commissioned a study of workplace settings where employees were largely sedentary. Their findings led to recommendations to test and evaluate “initiatives to facilitate and support the reduction of sitting time in the workplace” and added that “organizations need to be prompted to consider sedentary work spent sitting in the workplace as an emerging health issue.”

Although we may be locked into a lifestyle that keeps us on our duffs, there is no reason for us to be sitting ducks. Let’s all get up and move!

Office moves

Here are some healthy strategies to avoid the pitfalls of prolonged sitting when you’re at the office.

  • Shift weight frequently in your chair when sitting.
  • Locate items (such as wastebaskets, files, and printers) away from your desk to necessitate movement.
  • Climb the stairs, rather than using elevators and escalators.
  • Stand up while talking on the phone.
  • Use a headset to keep moving during phone calls.
  • Stand up during meetings.
  • Walk to your co-worker’s desk to communicate rather than emailing.
  • Alternate frequently between relaxed and upright posture.
  • Stand up occasionally (approximately every 30 minutes) for short durations.
  • Take frequent micro-breaks from sitting (walk around the office for a minute).
  • Stretch often.
  • Squeeze and relax muscles progressively, starting at the feet.
  • Practise pelvic floor strengthening exercises.
  • Sit on an exercise ball for short durations in place of a chair.
  • Go for a short walk outside.
  • Get up and get a glass of water.
  • Walk instead of driving for short trips (to the post office, for example).


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